The Cambridge English course offers a unique combination of breadth and flexibility, introducing you to a wide range of texts, from medieval to modern, whilst encouraging you to pursue particular enthusiasms and explore a variety of critical approaches.
At Gonville & Caius, you’ll benefit from excellent teaching and a warmly supportive environment for the study of literature, together with superb library resources that will allow you to develop your love of the subject to the full.
The English course at Cambridge consists of two parts. Part 1 fills the first two years, and offers you the opportunity to study English literature and its contexts in a series of period papers ranging from 1066 to the present day. You will also take a paper on Shakespeare and a paper on Practical Criticism and Critical Practice, to develop your skills in the close analysis of texts. Some of this work will be examined by coursework, and some by exams.
Part 2 (studied in the third year) is more flexible than Part 1, allowing you to build on interests and enthusiasms discovered in Part 1, and to strike out in new directions. There are two compulsory papers. The first is on Practical Criticism, continuing the emphasis on close reading that is such a distinctive feature of Cambridge English. The second is a boldly comparative paper on Tragedy from ancient Greece to the present day. You will also write a dissertation on a subject of your choice, and you will take two further papers from the huge choice on offer. (One of these can, if you prefer, be replaced by a second dissertation). Adding even more flexibility, at both Part 1 and Part 2 you can opt to replace one of your English papers with a paper chosen from Modern and Medieval Languages, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, or Classics.
Teaching takes place in university-wide lectures, in supervisions - either in pairs or on a one-to-one basis with an academic specialist - and in classes with some or all of your college year group. A typical week of term for a first-year student would contain four or five lectures, one 90-minute Practical Criticism class, another class on the particular historical period or topic being studied that term, and a one-hour supervision. This leaves plenty of time for class preparation and, most importantly, independently researching and writing your weekly supervision essay, a piece of around 1500-2000 words on a topic you’ll have decided on with your supervisor, and which will form the basis of the discussion in your supervision.
English at Caius
Every student reading English at Cambridge will follow the same broad course, but Colleges can have slightly different approaches to teaching. Our emphasis at Caius is very much on encouraging students to direct themselves towards the options which interest them and towards working out their own critical approaches to what they read and how they write. We won’t attempt to tell you what to think, but we understand that the sheer range of the course can seem bewildering at first, so our aim is to advise our students on the best path through the course for them, rather than pressing them in a particular direction. We are also especially interested in helping you discover your own voice as a literary critic, from the very beginning of your time here; our workshops in Critical Writing for our first years will give you the opportunity to focus on and experiment with the skills you’ll go on to develop when writing coursework essays and dissertations. This gives our students an excellent foundation for life after graduation: recent graduates have gone on to careers in the media, academia, the arts, law, teaching, management consultancy, international development and diplomacy.
Caius runs an essay prize for sixth formers in a variety of subjects including English.
English is a sizeable subject in Caius – our intake is usually between 8 and 10 – and we’re extremely lucky in the resources we’re able to offer our students. Caius has a superb library and an active drama society, and currently has ten Fellows in English: Dr Deborah Bowman, Dr Sarah Houghton-Walker, Professor Jason Scott-Warren, Dr Victoria Baena, Dr Ted Tregear, Dr Stephen Turton, Dr Chris Scott, Professor David Trotter, Mr Jeremy Prynne (Life Fellow), and Dr John Casey (Life Fellow). Dr Bowman is usually the Director of Studies for Part I and Dr Scott-Warren for Part II. We also have a thriving graduate community, and arrange social events each term to which everyone doing English at Caius – undergraduates, graduates and Fellows – is invited.
We're looking for applicants who already like reading very widely and thinking and working independently, and who will enjoy the challenge of researching and writing an essay each week on a new topic or author. We also want to make sure that the people we admit will be able to respond to the bigger conceptual issues that are raised by the literature they read, as well as being interested in developing the skills of close verbal analysis required by Practical Criticism.
You are expected to be well on the way to achieving very good academic results at sixth-form, and we require you to have A Level/IB Higher Level English Literature or English Literature and Language (or equivalent). We interview all suitably qualified applicants.
One interview will be based on a discussion of particular pieces of writing in poetry or prose or both; you will be given some time before this interview to think about these passages, which you’ll then discuss with your interviewer. Typically, we might begin by asking detailed questions about style and language, and then move on to talk about larger questions of genre and form. In the other interview, we tend to ask about your range of reading; we go on to ask a mixture of large-scale general questions relating to those works, and some small-scale questions about language and style. We also talk about the work you have been doing. Each interview develops in its own way, like a conversation. We are not interested in tripping people up, or testing their knowledge. We are interested in finding out how widely you are willing to read, how flexibly and originally you think, and your potential as a student of English.
To help us in this process we also ask you to submit two recent school essays, and all applicants to Cambridge also sit the same, centrally-set Admissions Test, the CELAT. Submitted essays must be completed as part of your normal course of study, not extracurricular competitions or courses, and, ideally, marked by a teacher. We ask you to submit work that you are proudest of, reflects your research interests, and inspires you. You will be sent any information you need about the CELAT when you are invited to interview. We look at each part of every application very closely when we decide whether to offer an applicant a place.
Here are some comments from current and past Caius English students, giving their views of the course and Caius as a place to study it:
"When I applied to Cambridge I did a stupid amount of research about colleges, so I know that Caius, as a famously sciencey college, is not one that immediately springs to mind when you think of studying English, BUT it should be. For me, Caius is quite literally perfect. We have easily the most beautiful college library (something that makes a surprisingly large difference when you’re struggling for inspiration). Another thing you get at Caius is a really fresh approach to English – some of the other colleges are far more traditional, but here you’re encouraged to be experimental and explore your individual interests. There’s so much else I could say – Caius takes a good number of Englings each year so you have more people to bounce ideas off; it’s the friendliest college by a mile; it’s the most beautiful college – but even more than all this, what makes the other Englings really jealous, is that in first year you are literally living within sight of the English department. You can roll out of bed thirty seconds before lectures start and still get there in time to grab a coffee from the buttery."
Ana, second-year English student at Caius
“Caius is a really great place to study English: our fellows are all lovely, and there’s lots of teaching in college, which means you really get to know your supervisors. For me, college has also been really helpful when it comes to things beyond the course: this summer I was lucky enough to receive a grant to help pay for a month-long journalism course in London. There are lots of grants for travel, courses, music, and a whole lot more, which really helps you to pursue your interests further, and make the most of being in Cambridge.”
Jessie, third-year English student at Caius
“The flexible nature of Cambridge's English course is perfect for student writers, as it makes it very easy to fit writing around reading, and vice versa. But I've found Caius particularly encouraging on a personal level; there's such an exciting legacy of poets at the college - from J.H. Prynne and Keston Sutherland to Sarah Howe. My supervisors have been really supportive and genuinely interested in my work: both what I'm doing and where I'm going.”
Imogen, third-year English student at Caius, and a published poet
“When I began at Caius as an undergraduate I had no idea I’d end up continuing to PhD level, and at every step of the way it has been a supportive and exciting environment to be in. Classes and supervisions are the life-blood of the course, challenging and exciting forums in which to discuss new ideas not only with your peers but one-to-one with your supervisor. I can remember very clearly the trepidation I felt when I first arrived as a Fresher at Cambridge, and equally well the real encouragement I received at Caius to read, write and think more confidently.”
Jack, a Caius PhD student who also completed his undergraduate study at Caius
Studying English at Caius gave me an unparalleled introduction to both canonical and contemporary literature, as well as to a variety of approaches and theories. The size and diversity of my cohort; the stunning library; the inspirational and dedicated supervisors all made it a truly special experience, and formed the foundation upon which I ultimately built my literary career.
Dr Ruth Gilligan, Caius graduate, bestselling novelist and Lecturer in Creative Writing